Talk reveals star-gazing ways of medics in Middle Ages


SCIENCE WEEK IRELAND:A PHYSICIAN providing treatment during the Middle Ages would have been as concerned about the patient's star sign as about good medical practice. He would have thought that a blood letting could be fatal if done under the wrong sign.

The nature of medical practice in the later Middle Ages was up for discussion yesterday at NUI Maynooth when Dr Carrie Griffin delivered a lecture entitled Plagues, Barbers and Humours: a look at Medicine in the high Middle Ages (1300-1500)as part of Science Week Ireland.

"Astrology and astronomy were important to doctors in the Middle Ages," said Dr Griffin, who is attached to the department of English at University College Cork and holds a National University of Ireland post-doctoral fellowship at Maynooth. "They believed that the signs of the zodiac ruled the body. Doctors were well grounded in astrology and they treated patients according to the information gleaned from the stars," she said.

Dr Griffin described how medical texts from the medieval period would often combine descriptions of medical practice, recipes, poems and prose, and agricultural advice.

A dominant theme in this form of medieval vanity publishing related to the Black Death. The texts contained advice on how to reduce the risk of plague infection, but without an understanding of what caused the illness, Dr Griffin said.

The books provided dietary advice and precautionary measures. "They also suggested that the plague was caused by bad air, so they advised people to carry bags of sweet-smelling herbs."

Literacy rates were low, however, and most, rather than read this useless advice, would buy amulets and charms and would flee an area if plague was reported.

"A lot of people, especially in rural areas, had to rely on what today we would call alternative medicine," Dr Griffin said.

They would go to local healers who might suggest a treatment to drive off bad humours. This could be done with blood letting or herbal infusions. "If people were out of humour, a phrase we still use today, the physician could treat them usually with herbs that would restore the balance of humours in the body," she explained.

This pointed to a difference at the time between physicians and surgeons. Physicians were typically university trained, whereas surgeons often learned their trade on the battlefield. "Surgery was very much seen as a craft, while physicians would have served noble households."

Dr Griffin also described how literature from the time could inform about medical practices, as seen in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. "Chaucer knew a lot of science, alchemy, astrology and astronomy. He actually wrote a treatise on the astrolabe, an instrument for determining the positions of the stars in the sky," she said.